But your spine has been smashed,
My beautiful, pitiful era,
And with an inane smile
You look back, cruel and weak,
Like an animal past its prime,
At the prints of your own paws.
—Osip Mandelstam, “Vek”1
One of my goals is to destroy the myth that the cruelest era of repression began in 1936–37. I think that in future, statistics will show that the wave of arrests, sentences and exile had already begun at the beginning of 1918, even before the official declaration, that autumn, of the “Red Terror.” From that moment, the wave simply grew larger and larger, until the death of Stalin . . .
—Dmitri Likhachev, Vospominaniya2
IN THE YEAR 1917, two waves of revolution rolled across Russia, sweeping Imperial Russian society aside as if it were destroying so many houses of cards. After Czar Nicholas II abdicated in February, events proved extremely difficult for anyone to halt or control. Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the first post-revolutionary Provisional Government, later wrote that, in the void following the collapse of the old regime, “all existing political and tactical programs, however bold and well conceived, appeared hanging aimlessly and uselessly in space.”3
But although the Provisional Government was weak, although popular dissatisfaction was widespread, although anger at the carnage caused by the First World War ran high, few expected power to fall into the hands of the Bolsheviks, one of several radical socialist parties agitating for even more rapid change. Abroad, the Bolsheviks were scarcely known. One apocryphal tale illustrates foreign attitudes very well: in 1917, so the story goes, a bureaucrat rushed into the office of the Austrian Foreign Minister, shouting, “Your Excellency, there has been a revolution in Russia!” The minister snorted. “Who could make a revolution in Russia? Surely not harmless Herr Trotsky, down at the Café Central?”
If the nature of the Bolsheviks was mysterious, their leader, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov—the man the world would come to know by his revolutionary pseudonym, “Lenin”—was even more so. During his many years as an émigré revolutionary, Lenin had been recognized for his brilliance, but also disliked for his intemperance and his factionalism. He picked frequent fights with other socialist leaders, and had a penchant for turning minor disagreements over seemingly irrelevant matters of dogma into major arguments.4
In the first months following the February Revolution, Lenin was very far from holding a position of unchallenged authority, even within his own Party. As late as mid-October 1917, a handful of leading Bolsheviks continued to oppose his plan to carry out a coup d’état against the Provisional Government, arguing that the Party was unprepared to take power, and that it did not yet have popular support. He won the argument, however, and on October 25 the coup took place. Under the influence of Lenin’s agitation, a mob sacked the Winter Palace. The Bolsheviks arrested the ministers of the Provisional Government. Within hours, Lenin had become the leader of the country he renamed Soviet Russia.
Yet although Lenin had succeeded in taking power, his Bolshevik critics had not been entirely wrong. The Bolsheviks were indeed wildly unprepared. As a result, most of their early decisions, including the creation of the one-party state, were taken to suit the needs of the moment. Their popular support was indeed weak, and almost immediately they began to wage a bloody civil war, simply in order to stay in power. From 1918, when the White Army of the old regime regrouped to fight the new Red Army—led by Lenin’s comrade, “Herr Trotsky” from the “Café Central”—some of the most brutal fighting ever seen in Europe raged across the Russian countryside. Nor did all of the violence take place in battlefields. The Bolsheviks went out of their way to quash intellectual and political opposition in any form it took, attacking not only the representatives of the old regime but also other socialists: Mensheviks, Anarchists, Social Revolutionaries. The new Soviet state would not know relative peace until 1921.5
Against this background of improvisation and violence, the first Soviet labor camps were born. Like so many other Bolshevik institutions, they were created ad hoc, in a hurry, as an emergency measure in the heat of the civil war. This is not to say the idea had no prior appeal. Three weeks before the October Revolution, Lenin himself was already sketching out an admittedly vague plan to organize “obligatory work duty” for wealthy capitalists. By January 1918, angered by the depth of the anti-Bolshevik resistance, he was even more vehement, writing that he welcomed “the arrest of millionaire-saboteurs traveling in first- and second-class train compartments. I suggest sentencing them to half a year’s forced labor in a mine.”6
Lenin’s vision of labor camps as a special form of punishment for a particular sort of bourgeois “enemy” sat well with his other beliefs about crime and criminals. On the one hand, the first Soviet leader felt ambivalent about the jailing and punishment of traditional criminals—thieves, pickpockets, murderers—whom he perceived as potential allies. In his view, the basic cause of “social excess” (meaning crime) was “the exploitation of the masses.” The removal of the cause, he believed, “will lead to the withering away of the excess.” No special punishments were therefore necessary to deter criminals: in time, the Revolution itself would do away with them. Some of the language in the Bolsheviks’ first criminal code would have thus warmed the hearts of the most radical, progressive criminal reformers in the West. Among other things, the code decreed that there was “no such thing as individual guilt,” and that punishment “should not be seen as retribution.”7
On the other hand, Lenin—like the Bolshevik legal theorists who followed in his wake—also reckoned that the creation of the Soviet state would give rise to a new kind of criminal: the “class enemy.” A class enemy opposed the Revolution, and worked openly, or more often secretly, to destroy it. The class enemy was harder to identify than an ordinary criminal, and much harder to reform. Unlike an ordinary criminal, a class enemy could never be trusted to cooperate with the Soviet regime, and required harsher punishment than would an ordinary murderer or thief. Thus in May 1918, the first Bolshevik “decree on bribery” declared that: “If the person guilty of taking or offering bribes belongs to the propertied classes and is using the bribe to preserve or acquire privileges, linked to property rights, then he should be sentenced to the harshest and most unpleasant forced labor and all of his property should be confiscated.”8
From the very earliest days of the new Soviet state, in other words, people were to be sentenced not for what they had done, but for who they were.
Unfortunately, nobody ever provided a clear description of what, exactly, a “class enemy” was supposed to look like. As a result, arrests of all sorts increased dramatically in the wake of the Bolshevik coup. From November 1917, revolutionary tribunals, composed of random “supporters” of the Revolution, began convicting random “enemies” of the Revolution. Prison sentences, forced-labor terms, and even capital punishment were arbitrarily meted out to bankers, to merchants’ wives, to “speculators”— meaning anyone engaged in independent economic activity—to former Czarist-era prison warders and to anyone else who seemed suspicious. 9
The definition of who was and who was not an “enemy” also varied from place to place, sometimes overlapping with the definition of “prisoner of war.” Upon occupying a new city, Trotsky’s Red Army frequently took bourgeois hostages, who could be shot in case the White Army returned, as it often did along the fluctuating lines of the front. In the interim they could be made to do forced labor, often digging trenches and building barricades.10 The distinction between political prisoners and common criminals was equally arbitrary. The uneducated members of the temporary commissions and revolutionary tribunals might, for example, suddenly decide that a man caught riding a tram without a ticket had offended society, and sentence him for political crimes.11 In the end, many such decisions were left up to the policemen or soldiers doing the arresting. Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka—Lenin’s secret police, the forerunner of the KGB— personally kept a little black notebook in which he scribbled down the names and addresses of random “enemies” he came across while doing his job.12
These distinctions would remain vague right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, eighty years later. Nevertheless, the existence of two categories of prisoner—“political” and “criminal”—had a profound effect on the formation of the Soviet penal system. During the first decade of Bolshevik rule, Soviet penitentiaries even split into two categories, one for each type of prisoner. The split arose spontaneously, as a reaction to the chaos of the existing prison system. In the very early days of the Revolution, all prisoners were incarcerated under the jurisdiction of the “traditional” judicial ministries, first the Commissariat of Justice, later the Commissariat of the Interior, and placed in the “ordinary” prison system. That is, they were thrown into the remnants of the Czarist system, usually into the dirty, gloomy stone prisons which occupied a central position in every major town. During the revolutionary years of 1917 to 1920, these institutions were in total disarray. Mobs had stormed the jails, self-appointed commissars had sacked the guards, prisoners had received wide-ranging amnesties or had simply walked away.13
By the time the Bolsheviks took charge, the few prisons that remained in operation were overcrowded and inadequate. Only weeks after the Revolution, Lenin himself demanded “extreme measures for the immediate improvement of food supplies to the Petrograd prisons.”14 A few months later, a member of the Moscow Cheka visited the city’s Taganskaya prison and reported “terrible cold and filth,” as well as typhus and hunger. Most of the prisoners could not carry out their forced-labor sentences because they had no clothes. A newspaper report claimed that Butyrka prison in Moscow, designed to hold 1,000 prisoners, already contained 2,500. Another newspaper complained that the Red Guards “unsystematically arrest hundreds of people every day, and then don’t know what to do with them.” 15
Overcrowding led to “creative” solutions. Lacking anything better, the new authorities incarcerated prisoners in basements, attics, empty palaces, and old churches. One survivor later remembered being placed in the cellar of a deserted house, in a single room with fifty people, no furniture, and little food: those who did not get packages from their families simply starved.16 In December 1917, a Cheka commission discussed the fate of fiftysix assorted prisoners—“thieves, drunks and various ‘politicals’”—who were being kept in the basement of the Smolny Institute, Lenin’s headquarters in Petrograd.17
Not everyone suffered from the chaotic conditions. Robert Bruce Lockhart, a British diplomat accused of spying (accurately, as it happened), was imprisoned in 1918 in a room in the Kremlin. He occupied himself playing Patience, and reading Thucydides and Carlyle. From time to time, a former imperial servant brought him hot tea and newspapers.18
But even in the remaining traditional jails, prison regimes were erratic, and prison wardens were inexperienced. A prisoner in the northern Russian–Finnish border city of Vyborg discovered that, in the topsy-turvy post-revolutionary world, his former chauffeur had become a prison guard. The man was delighted to help his former master move to a better, drier cell, and eventually to escape.19 One White Army colonel also recalled that in the Petrograd prison in December 1917 prisoners came and left at will, while homeless people slept in the cells at night. Looking back on this era, one Soviet official remembered that “the only people who didn’t escape were those who were too lazy.”20
The disarray forced the Cheka to come up with new solutions: the Bolsheviks could hardly allow their “real” enemies to enter the ordinary prison system. Chaotic jails and lazy guards might be suitable for pickpockets and juvenile delinquents, but for the saboteurs, parasites, speculators, White Army officers, priests, bourgeois capitalists, and others who loomed so large in the Bolshevik imagination, more creative solutions were needed.
A solution was found as early as June 4, 1918, when Trotsky called for a group of unruly Czech war prisoners to be pacified, disarmed, and placed in a kontslager: a concentration camp. Twelve days later, in a memorandum addressed to the Soviet government, Trotsky again spoke of concentration camps, outdoor prisons in which “the city and village bourgeoisie . . . shall be mobilized and organized into rear-service battalions to do menial work (cleaning barracks, camps, streets, digging trenches, etc.). Those refusing will be fined, and held under arrest until the fine is paid.” 21
In August, Lenin made use of the term as well. In a telegram to the commissars of Penza, site of an anti-Bolshevik uprising, he called for “mass terror against the kulaks [rich peasants], priests and White Guards” and for the “unreliable” to be “locked up in a concentration camp outside town.”22The facilities were already in place. During the summer of 1918—in the wake of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty which ended Russia’s participation in the First World War—the regime freed two million war prisoners. The empty camps were immediately turned over to the Cheka.23
At the time, the Cheka must have seemed the ideal body to take over the task of incarcerating “enemies” in “special” camps. A completely new organization, the Cheka was designed to be the “sword and shield” of the Communist Party, and had no allegiance to the official Soviet government or any of its departments. It had no traditions of legality, no obligation to obey the rule of law, no need to consult with the police or the courts or the Commissar of Justice. Its very name spoke of its special status: the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage—or, using the Russian abbreviation for “Extraordinary Commission”—the Ch-K, or Cheka. It was “extraordinary” precisely because it existed outside of “ordinary” legality.
Almost as soon as it was created, the Cheka was given an extraordinary task to carry out. On September 5, 1918, Dzerzhinsky was directed to implement Lenin’s policy of Red Terror. Launched in the wake of an assassination attempt on Lenin’s life, this wave of terror—arrests, imprisonments, murders—more organized than the random terror of the previous months, was in fact an important component of the civil war, directed against those suspected of working to destroy the Revolution on the “home front.” It was bloody, it was merciless, and it was cruel—as its perpetrators wanted it to be. Krasnaya Gazeta, the organ of the Red Army, described it: “Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands, let them drown themselves in their own blood. For the blood of Lenin . . . let there be floods of blood of the bourgeoisie—more blood, as much as possible . . .”24
The Red Terror was crucial to Lenin’s struggle for power. Concentration camps, the so-called “special camps,” were crucial to the Red Terror. They were mentioned in the very first decree on Red Terror, which called not only for the arrest and incarceration of “important representatives of the bourgeoisie, landowners, industrialists, merchants, counter-revolutionary priests, anti-Soviet officers” but also for their “isolation in concentration camps.”25 Although there are no reliable figures for numbers of prisoners, by the end of 1919 there were twenty-one registered camps in Russia. At the end of 1920 there were 107, five times as many. 26
Nevertheless, at this stage, the purpose of the camps remained ambiguous. The prisoners were to carry out labor—but to what end? Was labor meant to re-educate the prisoners? Was it meant to humiliate them? Or was it supposed to help build the new Soviet state? Different Soviet leaders and different institutions had different answers. In February 1919, Dzerzhinsky himself made an eloquent speech advocating a role for the camps in the ideological re-education of the bourgeoisie. The new camps would, he said, make use of the labor of those persons under arrest; for those gentlemen who live without any occupation; and for those who are unable to work without being forced to do so. Such punishment ought to be applied to those working in Soviet institutions who demonstrate unconscientious attitudes to work, tardiness, etc. . . . In this way we will create schools of labor.27
When the first official decrees on the special camps were published in the spring of 1919, however, slightly different priorities appeared to take precedent.28 The decrees, a surprisingly lengthy list of rules and recommendations, suggested that each regional capital set up a camp for no less than 300 people, “on the border of the city, or in nearby buildings like monasteries, estates, farms, etc.” They mandated an eight-hour workday, with extra hours and night work allowed only “in agreement with the labor code.” Food packages were forbidden. Meetings with members of the immediate family were allowed, but only on Sundays and holidays. Prisoners attempting escape could have their sentence multiplied by ten. A second attempt could be punished by death—an extremely harsh sentence in comparison with the lax Czarist laws on escape, which the Bolsheviks knew only too well. More important, the decrees also made clear that the work of the prisoners was intended not for their own educational benefit, but to pay for the cost of the camp’s upkeep. Prisoners with disabilities were to be sent elsewhere. The camps were to be self-financing. Optimistically, the camps’ original founders believed that they would pay their own way.29
Thanks to the irregular flow of state financing, those running the camps quickly became interested in the idea of self-finance or at least in making some practical use of their prisoners. In September 1919, a secret report shown to Dzerzhinsky complained that sanitary conditions in one transit camp were “below criticism,” largely because they rendered so many people too ill to work: “During wet autumn conditions they will not be places to collect people and make use of their labor, but will rather become seedbeds for epidemics and other illnesses.” Among other things, the writer proposed that those incapable of work should be sent elsewhere, thereby making the camp more efficient—a tactic that would later be deployed many times by the leadership of the Gulag. Already, those responsible for the camps were concerned about sickness and hunger mostly insofar as sick and hungry prisoners are not useful prisoners. Their dignity and humanity, not to mention their survival, hardly interested those in charge at all. 30
In practice, not all camp commanders were concerned either with re-education or self-financing. Instead they preferred to punish the formerly well-off by humiliating them, giving them a taste of the workers’ lot. A report from the Ukrainian city of Poltava, filed by a White Army investigating commission after the temporary recapture of the city, noted that bourgeois captives arrested during the Bolshevik occupation had been given jobs which were “intended as a way of scoffing at people, trying to lower them. For example, one arrestee . . . was forced to clean a thick layer of dirt from a filthy floor with his hands. Another was told to clean a toilet, and . . . was given a tablecloth in order to do the job.” 31
True, these subtle differences in intention probably made little difference to the many tens of thousands of prisoners, for whom the very fact of being arrested for no reason at all was humiliation enough. They probably did not affect prisoners’ living conditions either, which were universally appalling. One priest sent to a camp in Siberia later recalled soup made from entrails, barracks without electricity, and virtually no heat in winter. 32 Alexander Izgoev, a leading Czarist-era politician, was sent to a camp north of Petrograd. On the way, his party of prisoners stopped in the town of Vologda. Instead of the hot meal and warm apartments they had been promised, the prisoners were marched from place to place in search of shelter. No transit camp had been prepared for them. Finally, they were lodged in a former school, furnished with “bare walls and benches.” Those with money eventually purchased their own food in the town.33
But this sort of chaotic mistreatment was not reserved only for prisoners. At crucial moments of the civil war, the emergency needs of the Red Army and the Soviet state overrode everything else, from re-education to revenge to considerations of justice. In October 1918, the commander of the northern front sent a request to the Petrograd military commission for 800 workers, urgently needed for road construction and trench digging. As a result, “a number of citizens from the former merchant classes were invited to appear at Soviet headquarters, allegedly for the purpose of registration for possible labor duty at some future date. When these citizens appeared for registration, they were placed under arrest and sent to the Semenovsky barracks to await their dispatch to the front.” When even this did not produce enough workers, the local Soviet—the local ruling council—simply surrounded a part of Nevsky Prospekt, Petrograd’s main shopping street, arrested everyone without a Party card or a certificate proving they worked for a government institution, and marched them off to a nearby barracks. Later, the women were released, but the men were packed off to the north: “not one of the thus strangely mobilized men was allowed to settle his family affairs, to say goodbye to his relatives, or to obtain suitable clothing and footwear.”34
While certainly shocking to the pedestrians thus arrested, that incident would have seemed less odd to Petrograd’s workers. For even at this early stage in Soviet history, the line between “forced labor” and ordinary labor was blurred. Trotsky openly spoke of turning the whole country into a “workers’ army” along the lines of the Red Army. Workers were early on forced to register at central labor offices, from where they might be sent anywhere in the country. Special decrees were passed prohibiting certain kinds of workers—miners, for example—from leaving their jobs. Nor did free workers, in this era of revolutionary chaos, enjoy much better living conditions than prisoners. Looking from the outside, it would not always have been easy to say which was the work site and which the concentration camp.35
But this too was a harbinger of what was to come: confusion would beset the definitions of “camp,” “prison,” and “forced labor” for most of the next decade. Control over penal institutions would remain in constant flux. Responsible institutions would be endlessly renamed and reorganized as different bureaucrats and commissars attempted to gain control over the system.36
Nevertheless, it is clear that by the end of the civil war, a pattern had been set. Already, the Soviet Union had clearly developed two separate prison systems, with separate rules, separate traditions, separate ideologies. The Commissariat of Justice, and later the Commissariat of the Interior, ran the “regular” prison system, which dealt mainly with what the Soviet regime called “criminals.” Although in practice this system was also chaotic, its prisoners were kept in traditional prisons, and its administrators’ stated goals, as presented in an internal memorandum, would be perfectly comprehensible in “bourgeois” countries: to reform the criminal through corrective labor—“prisoners should work in order to learn skills they can use to conduct an honest life”—and to prevent prisoners from committing further crimes.37
At the same time, the Cheka—later renamed the GPU, the OGPU, the NKVD, and finally the KGB—controlled another prison system, one that was at first known as the system of “special camps” or “extraordinary camps.” Although the Cheka would use some of the same “re-education” or “reforging” rhetoric within them, these camps were not really meant to resemble ordinary penal institutions. They were outside the jurisdiction of other Soviet institutions, and invisible to the public eye. They had special rules, harsher escape penalties, stricter regimes. The prisoners inside them had not necessarily been convicted by ordinary courts, if they had been convicted by any courts at all. Set up as an emergency measure, they were ultimately to grow larger and ever more powerful, as the definition of “enemy” expanded and the power of the Cheka increased. And when the two penal systems, the ordinary and the extraordinary, eventually united, they would unite under the rules of the latter. The Cheka would devour its rivals.
From the start, the “special” prison system was meant to deal with special prisoners: priests, former Czarist officials, bourgeois speculators, enemies of the new order. But one particular category of “politicals” interested the authorities more than others. These were members of the non-Bolshevik, revolutionary socialist political parties, mainly the Anarchists, the Left and Right Social Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks, and anyone else who had fought for the Revolution, but had not had the foresight to join Lenin’s Bolshevik faction, and had not taken full part in the coup of October 1917. As former allies in the revolutionary struggle against the Czarist regime, they merited special treatment. The Communist Party’s Central Committee would repeatedly discuss their fate up until the end of the 1930s, when most of those who remained alive were arrested or shot.38
In part, this particular category of prisoner bothered Lenin because, like all leaders of exclusive sects, he reserved his greatest hatred for apostates. During one typical exchange, he called one of his socialist critics a “swindler,” a “blind puppy,” a “sycophant of the bourgeoisie,” and a “yes-man of blood-suckers and scoundrels,” fit only for the “cesspit of renegades.”39 Indeed, long before the Revolution, Lenin knew what he would do with those of his socialist comrades who opposed him. One of his revolutionary companions recalled a conversation on this subject:
“I said to him: ‘Vladimir Ilyich, if you come to power, you’ll start hanging the Mensheviks the very next day.’ And he glanced at me and said: ‘It will be after we’ve hanged the last Socialist-Revolutionary that the first Menshevik will get hanged.’ Then he frowned and gave a laugh.” 40
But the prisoners who belonged to this special category of “politicals” were also much more difficult to control. Many had spent years in Czarist prisons, and knew how to organize hunger strikes, how to put pressure on their jailers, how to communicate between prison cells in order to exchange information, and how to organize joint protests. More important, they also knew how to contact the outside world, and who to contact. Most of Russia’s non-Bolshevik socialist parties still had émigré branches, usually in Berlin or Paris, whose members could do great damage to the Bolsheviks’ international image. At the third meeting of the Communist International in 1921, representatives of the émigré branch of the Social Revolutionaries—the party ideologically closest to the Bolsheviks (some of its members actually worked briefly in coalition with them)—read aloud a letter from their imprisoned comrades in Russia. The letter caused a sensation at the Congress, largely because it claimed prison conditions in revolutionary Russia were worse than in Czarist times. “Our comrades are being half-starved,” it proclaimed, “many of them are jailed for months without being allowed a meeting with relatives, without letters, without exercise.”41
The émigré socialists could and did agitate on the prisoners’ behalf, just as they had before the Revolution. Immediately after the Bolshevik coup, several celebrated revolutionaries, including Vera Figner, the author of a memoir of life in Czarist prisons, and Ekaterina Peshkova, the wife of the writer Maxim Gorky, helped relaunch the Political Red Cross, a prisoners’ aid organization which had worked underground before the Revolution. Peshkova knew Dzerzhinsky well, and corresponded with him regularly and cordially. Thanks to her contacts and prestige, the Political Red Cross received the right to visit places of imprisonment, to talk to political prisoners, to send them parcels, even to petition for the release of those who were ill, privileges which it retained through much of the 1920s.42 So improbable did these activities later seem to the writer Lev Razgon, imprisoned in 1937, that he listened to his second wife’s stories of the Political Red Cross—her father had been one of the socialist prisoners—as if to “an unbelievable fairy tale.”43
The bad publicity generated by the Western socialists and the Political Red Cross bothered the Bolsheviks a great deal. Many had lived for years in exile, and were therefore sensitive to the opinions of their old international comrades. Many also still believed that the Revolution might spread to the West at any moment, and did not want the progress of communism to be slowed by bad press. By 1922, they were worried enough by Western press reports to launch the first of what would be many attempts to disguise communist terror by attacking “capitalist terror.” Toward this end, they created an “alternative” prisoners’ aid society: the International Society to Aid the Victims of Revolution—MOPR, according to its Russian acronym—which would purportedly work to help the “100,000 prisoners of capitalism.”44
Although the Berlin chapter of the Political Red Cross immediately denounced MOPR for trying to “silence the groans of those dying in Russian prisons, concentration camps and places of exile,” others were taken in. In 1924, MOPR claimed to have four million members, and even held its first international conference, with representatives from around the world. 45 The propaganda made its mark. When the French writer Romain Rolland was asked to comment upon a published collection of letters from socialists in Russian prisons, he responded by claiming that “There are almost identical things going on in the prisons of Poland; you have them in the prisons of California, where they are martyrizing the workingmen of the IWW; you have them in the English dungeons of the Andaman Islands ...”46
The Cheka also sought to ameliorate the bad press by sending the troublesome socialists farther away from their contacts. Some were sent, by administrative order, into distant exile, just as the Czarist regime had once done. Others were sent to remote camps near the northern city of Arkhangelsk, and in particular to one set up in the former monastery of Kholmogory, hundreds of miles to the north of Petrograd, near the White Sea. Nevertheless, even the remotest exiles found means of communication. From Narym, a distant part of Siberia, a small group of “politicals” in a tiny concentration camp managed to get a letter to an émigré socialist newspaper complaining that they were “so firmly isolated from the rest of the world that only letters dealing with the health of relatives or our own health can hope to reach their destination. Any other messages . . . do not arrive.” Among their number, they noted, was Olga Romanova, an eighteen-year-old Anarchist, who was sent to a particularly remote part of the region “where she was fed for three months on bread and hot water.”47
Nor did distant exile guarantee peace for the jailers. Almost everywhere they went, socialist prisoners, accustomed to the privileged treatment once given to political prisoners in Czarist jails, demanded newspapers, books, walks, unlimited right of correspondence, and, above all, the right to choose their own spokesman when dealing with the authorities. When incomprehending local Cheka agents refused—they were doubtless unable to tell the difference between an Anarchist and an arsonist—the socialists protested, sometimes violently. According to one description of the Kholmogory camp, a group of prisoners found that
. . . it was necessary to wage a struggle for the most elementary things, such as conceding to socialists and anarchists the ordinary rights of political prisoners. In this struggle they were subjected to all the known punishments, such as solitary confinement, beating, starving, throwing on to the wire, organized firing by the military detachment at the building, etc. It will suffice to say that at the end of the year the majority of the Kholmogory inmates could boast, in addition to their past records, hunger strikes totaling thirty to thirty-five days . . .48
Ultimately, this same group of prisoners was moved from Kholmogory to another camp at Petrominsk, another monastery. According to a petition they later sent to the authorities, they were greeted there with “rude shouts and threats,” locked six at a time into a tiny former-monks’ cell, given bunks “alive with parasites,” forbidden any exercise, books, or writing paper.49 The commander of Petrominsk, Comrade Bachulis, tried to break the prisoners by depriving them of light and heat—and from time to time by shooting at their windows.50 In response, they launched another endless round of hunger strikes and protest letters. Ultimately, they demanded to be moved from the camp itself, which they claimed was malarial.51
Other camp bosses complained about such prisoners too. In a letter to Dzerzhinsky, one wrote that in his camp “White Guards who feel themselves to be political prisoners” had organized themselves into a “spirited team,” making it impossible for the guards to work: “they defame the administration, blacken its name . . . they despise the honest and good name of the Soviet worker.”52 Some guards took matters into their own hands. In April 1921, one group of prisoners in Petrominsk refused to work and demanded more food rations. Fed up with this insubordination, the Arkhangelsk regional authorities ordered all 540 of them sentenced to death. They were duly shot.53
Elsewhere, the authorities tried to keep the peace by taking the opposite tack, granting the socialists all of their demands. Bertha Babina, a member of the Social Revolutionaries, remembered her arrival at the “socialist wing” of Butyrka prison in Moscow as a joyous reunion with friends, people “from the St. Petersburg underground, from my student years, and from the many different towns and cities where we had lived during our wanderings.” The prisoners were allowed free run of the prison. They organized morning gymnastic sessions, founded an orchestra and a chorus, created a “club” supplied with foreign journals and a good library. According to tradition— dating back to pre-revolutionary days—every prisoner left behind his books after he was freed. A prisoners’ council assigned everyone cells, some of which were beautifully supplied with carpets, on the floors and the walls. Another prisoner remembered that “we strolled along the corridors as if they were boulevards.”54 To Babina, prison life seemed unreal: “Can’t they even lock us up seriously?” 55
The Cheka leadership wondered the same. In a report to Dzerzhinsky dated January 1921, a prison inspector complained angrily that in Butyrka prison “men and women walk about together, anarchist and counter-revolutionary slogans hang from the walls of cells.”56 Dzerzhinsky recommended a stricter regime—but when a stricter regime was brought in, the prisoners protested again.
The Butyrka idyll ended soon after. In April 1921, according to a letter which a group of Social Revolutionaries wrote to the authorities, “between 3 and 4 a.m., an armed group of men entered the cells and began to attack . . . women were dragged out of their cells by their arms and legs and hair, others were beaten up.” In their own later reports, the Cheka described this “incident” as a rebellion which had got out of hand—and resolved never again to allow so many political prisoners to accumulate in Moscow.57 By February 1922, the “socialist wing” of the Butyrka prison had been dissolved.
Repression had not worked. Concessions had not worked. Even in its special camps, the Cheka could not control its special prisoners. Nor could it prevent news about them from reaching the outside world. Clearly, another solution was needed, both for them and for all the other unruly counter-revolutionaries gathered in the special prison system. By the spring of 1923, a solution had been found: Solovetsky.